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A Walk in the Park

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Hawl grumbled. His free pass to Adventure Studios wasn't valid this weekend. It was supposed to be good through the end of the year, but this weekend was some kind of special Christmas event. He managed to argue his way into a half-price pass for the weekend, anyhow. The park wanted him to come in and spend money, right?

The whole park was relentlessly decked out in Christmas stuff. Fake snow, candy canes, and speakers blaring absolutely every generic carol known to Man. All despite the place being in Florida, and seventy degrees and sunny. Hawl walked around in a t-shirt past piles of cotton snow. The rides were all open, but mobbed with tourists. Hawl stood in line for forty-five minutes or so to watch a 3D-ish movie with water jets and confetti being blown at him for some reason, and that took around five minutes. Blah. He tested out one of the roller coasters for more excitement. Forty-five minutes to wait, five minutes of terror.

He was getting impatient from standing in lines. Hawl sighed and gave up on the rides for now. The whole park was overrun with people, so that he kept banging into someone whenever he moved without glancing over one shoulder. Blah! He dodged away from the worst crowds and found himself in one of the restaurants, the Doorway Cafe. Doors everywhere, from ornate temple gateways to glowing blue and orange holes in the wall. Hawl thought it was a pretty good place, even if what it sold was mostly the same overpriced burgers as every other restaurant in the theme park. And even though finding the men's room was hell.

He took out the free pass he'd gotten as an early Christmas present. It was a fancy plastic card, faintly translucent and glittery. Showing it off had helped get him the ticket for this weekend; maybe it counted as one of those obnoxious (but useful) cards that let you cut in line. He had a meal to pass the time, then stretched and headed out for another crack at the rides.

It was starting to get dark quickly. The park looked different by dusk: the fake cartoonish buildings blended in better than they would in brighter light. Hawl realized he'd left by a different door, not surprisingly, and come into a whole other district of the park. This was the cartoon zone, based on the latest over-merchandized movies. Nice coloration, and a lot of contrast between the cheery "Noisytown" and... what was the spooky castle over there supposed to be? Hawl didn't remember it from the movies' advertising. There didn't seem to be much of a line outside, so it looked like a welcome break from standing around.

Hawl passed a cart selling whole turkey legs for the third time today, and found his way blocked by a rope. There was a whole zigzag area for people to stand around like he'd been doing for other rides, but this one was empty. Closed, presumably. But just a moment ago he'd seen somebody walking in. Odd. Hawl ducked under the rope to check the place out. The empty line became a tunnel into the castle. He saw torches along the walls that took a moment to recognize as fake electric things. No sign of the other people in line, but obviously this was the way into the ride. Which ride, though? He pulled out his park map and saw it gleaming eerily in the fake torchlight. He was in Cartoon Zone, and so this must be... Mouse Quest Castle. Not that cartoon mouse, thankfully; there'd been a recent movie about a bunch of adventurers who'd been turned into mice for some reason.

There was no actual ride listed here, though; the map was outdated. Hawl shrugged and headed farther down the tunnel to find out whether this was a roller coaster or a motion simulator or what. Other than one sign warning people away if they were bothered by flashing lights, there wasn't much to indicate that he was even walking into a ride. Hawl pulled a silver pocketwatch from his back pocket and realized he'd been walking through this castle for ten minutes. There was a grinding noise ahead, and dripping water, but when he got to the actual ride, no one was working there. He'd come to a tunnel that led into darkness, with a set of carts on a track. The ride was running as though nothing were wrong.

Hawl sighed. Was the ride open or not? Considering that the ride attendants were basically only there to keep some kid or stupid person from hurting themselves, he might as well see what this thing was. He took out a large wooden sign and a marker from somewhere, set them down, and wrote "Unattended Ride -- Use At Own Risk" for anybody else who walked in. He hopped into a cart, thought better of it, and attached a complaints box to the sign plus paper and pencils. There! He flicked his ears back, got back on the ride and let the cart carry him away into the tunnel.

Creepy music started up. He hadn't seen the movie this place was based on, but it seemed scarier than typical cartoon fare. Something about ravenous cats prowling for prey. He actually found himself ducking in his seat when the special effects started up. Lots of flame jets and swinging blades and feline shadows. The cart sped up and the track veered this way and that through a dungeon. What had started out as a vaguely gothy "It's A Small World After All" had started to become a roller coaster... And he was all alone in the tunnels.

It was a relief when the cart finally stopped. Hawl had been in the dark so long that the lights of the exit station seemed surreal, like blacklights making everything from the walls to his skin glow. The last bit had featured an evil cat king about to eat him; Hawl felt like he was clawing at the seat, more scared than he had any right to be. He managed to laugh. "That was not a kids' ride," he said, as the cart's safety bar released. He got up and stretched...

Just in time for the cart to plummet into darkness with him standing in it.

Hawl woke up lying painfully on his back, in a dark room. He'd squashed one leg under him... huh? No, that was... He sat up and saw a glowing pair of paw-like hands. His hands! A whiplike tail was squashed under him. Attached to him! He scrambled to his feet and looked himself over. It was as though he'd been doused in glowing paint and decorated like a mouse! He tried to brush away the grey fur painted along his arms, but the stuff wouldn't come off. The faint light overhead had that same unreal quality that made everything glow without really lighting it up usefully. That had to be why he looked like this, yeah, plus nerves. He laughed. He'd get out of here and tell everyone it was an awesome ride, very convincing.

The only door out of this little spot was locked. He pounded on it and shouted, but no one came. What was going on? He looked around and realized that the room looked like a fantasy castle's version of a broom closet, with a glowing oversize key on a high shelf. He tried to hop up to the thing and only fell over backwards onto the stone floor, hard enough that he thought he'd be badly hurt. Instead, though, he felt like he'd been squashed against the floor for a moment and sprung back up without a scratch. Weird! Even so, he couldn't grab the key. In frustration he took out a battleaxe and just smashed the door down.

"Wait a minute. Where did I get this?!" Hawl found he was holding an unreasonably big steel axe notched with heavy use, with a tiny scrawled inscription reading "Property Of Ulfric". It glowed like everything else in here. Come to think of it, where had he gotten that sign earlier, or the pocketwatch? The door was laying in pieces on the floor. Hawl dropped the axe so that he didn't get arrested or something, then hurried out. He glanced back into the room and saw that the axe had vanished, like it had stopped existing as soon as he wasn't paying attention to it.

A feline hiss distracted him. He was back along the ride's tunnel! He stumbled through the darkness toward the way he'd come out before, trying to ignore the spooky effects. An empty cart whooshed past, too fast to get into. Finally he made it back to the station and hopped out to relatively normal ground, still not seeing anyone. "Hello?" There was an exit at last. He could get out of this weird light and figure out what had happened to him.

The outdoor air was a little chilly. Night had fallen. Hawl saw people still walking around, though a lot fewer than before. He glanced at them, then looked back down at himself. He still looked mousy and had the same unearthly glow, even in the same streetlight glare as the other guests. "Okay, apparently I'm seeing things." He wondered whether to try walking out there and risk being seen. Why not?

"Hey, look! It's one of the mascots. Wave hello, dear!" A mother beamed at him and got her kid to wave meekly. Hawl waved back, confused. He supposed he did fit in pretty well with the toon castle theme, if he was glowing and mousy like this. So had he been doused in special paint, or what? Hopefully somebody around here would know. He walked down the toon-city street and headed for the next area of the park, in search of answers.

He hesitated at the bridge where cartoonish colors gave way to dark jungle wood. It felt as though crossing it was special, somehow. He took out a giant, ancient-looking scroll from his back pocket and... "Now wait a minute." He glanced back and realized he wasn't actually wearing pants anymore, just a long and vaguely medieval tunic. Great; not even the gift shops sold pants! He took a few steps, trying to figure out where he'd have the best chance of finding someone in charge... and stepped across the bridge without meaning to.

He shivered and felt fur bristling along his tail. He marveled at being able to feel the thing curling behind him at all. "Stripes, now?" It didn't look mousy anymore, and nor did his paws. He glanced at the map again and saw he'd crossed over into the Lost Temple Zone, full of towering trees and jungle drums. That kind of matched what he was seeing now: orange and black stripes all along his arms and tail, like... "A tiger. I've turned into a big cat now?" He ducked into the trees to hide and think. The medieval tunic was shifting now too. Starting to look like a ragged, buttoned shirt tied up around his chest to leave his midriff bare. He was going to get arrested for running around half-naked. Yeesh! He whipped out a sewing machine, tore down some big leaves from the trees, and quickly made a proper skirt for himself so there wouldn't be any lovestruck explorer guys expecting him to pounce on them.

Hawl stood in the little jungle, starting to count just how many things were wrong with what he'd just done and thought. Now that he looked himself over again, that shirt looked awfully puffy around the chest. He poked at it with his hands, trying not to use his tiger claws, and blushed. Considering how well the skirt fit around his hips, too... well, her hips, the new form seemed to be a tiger-girl. Okay, she had to get this situation dealt with somehow! Forgetting the sewing machine, she dashed back across the bridge to try undoing the latest change first... Whew! She found herself turning back into a mouse, not that that counted as normal. The jungle finery was shifting back too, into a dress. "Oh, come on! Not even back into a mouse-guy?" She harumphed and crossed back to jungle land to be a tigress again. "This isn't too bad," she started to think.

Park guests were staring at her. She purred, enjoying the attention now. Whatever had happened, there were much worse fates than taking a vacation as a tigress.

"Hey, miss! How does that costume work?"

It took Hawl a while to figure out that the guy over there was talking to her. She blushed. "What costume?"

The tourist laughed. "In-character, I see. Makes sense for a toon."

When the man had walked on, Hawl asked herself, "Is that what I am? A cartoon?" It would explain a few things, sort of. "If that's true then I should be able to..." She pulled out a jungle spear from... someplace. It had felt like reaching into a strange, cold space hidden behind her back. She chucked the spear into a nearby tree and used it as a springboard to vault into the treetops, before realizing she could do that too. She lurked in the branches, tail lashing, thinking vaguely about dinner as she looked down on the park guests.

"Psst." A man in a yellow suit leaned casually against a trunk, twenty feet off the ground.

Hawl nearly fell from her perch. "How'd you get up here?" He didn't look like another toon.

He flashed a badge. "Park security. We can go anywhere. Anywhere." The man gave an insincere smile. "Apparently you've been into a spot you shouldn't have."

"The ride looked open! At least I saw somebody else going in, and the ride was running."

"That was a couple of our technicians, working on the special equipment. At Adventure Studios we bring people movie magic. People don't quite understand how sincere we are about that. Usually it's hidden behind animatronics and other stagecraft."

Hawl looked down at her glowing body. "So I'm actually a toon now?"

"Of course. Experimental procedure. It was meant to be more subtle, for a new group of park mascots, but you got the full dose when you blundered into the castle. So, you live here now. You're hired."

Hawl hopped over to the man's branch, which swayed under them. "Wait a minute. I never signed up for this. Can I get turned back, at least partway?" She had to admit she wouldn't quite want to go back to being a human guy, but being a living toon might be inconvenient.

The man shrugged. "You can be whatever the park needs. You've crossed over from the toon castle district to the jungle, and noticed the changes there, right? Try walking toward the Mars Mania ride or the Robot Riderz Xtreem Arkayd or Chef Veggie's FableTable and you'll adapt."

"So why didn't I go back to mouse-man when I tried crossing the bridge again?"

"This is new 'technology' to us too. It seems to give you forms you're happy with, so apparently you don't mind too much. You make a fine tigress, I must say."

Hawl's head spun and her foot-claws dug into the wood. "What about when I go outside the park?"

Another smile. "I said, you live here now. The..." He lowered his voice. "The spell doesn't seem to sustain a toon anywhere past parking lot B. But hey, there are plenty of places you can live while you work here, and there are bound to be new attractions built over the decades."

"Decades..." said Hawl. Stuck here forever? It might actually be forever, so long as the theme park existed.

"Hey, don't feel bad. It'll be fun. You get to participate in special events like the Christmas... uh, Holiday Parade. Why don't you come down and check it out? It should be starting soon by the Congo Cruise."

Hawl didn't know what to make of all this. There was a bit of tiger instinct pushing her, though, or maybe cartoon-logic instinct. Instead of calmly making her way back down the tree, she tackled the security guy, pulled out a trampoline in midair, tossed it down, and bounced with him a couple of times before landing on all fours with a big toothy grin and a lashing tail. "Okay then," she said. "If I'm working here, I have free run of the place."

The man's suit was disheveled and he was shaking, brushing bits of glowing toon fur off it. "Y-yes, of course."

"Then I'm off!" She bounded away from him to go exploring without any more hand-holding. There'd be plenty of time to figure this toon thing out. It could be fun.

The jungle land gave way to more fake snow. People in ordinary costumes were lining up to show off in stilts and princess gowns and other boring gigs. She'd get to strut around as a tigress! She scratched around her ears, wondering why her head felt heavy all of the sudden. She got her answer when the antlers came in, and when her fingers turned into hoofy things. No more stripes! Now she was getting an implausible furry skirt and sweater that left her legs bare, down to her new foot-hooves. Red-and-white Santa gear on brown fur. "Reindeer!" she said, and laughed. There was a lot of potential here to be something new, to change with the seasons and her mood.

Hawl grinned, and hopped into the parade line for the first of many times.